Immune System Tutorial #1
“A healthy immune system stops cancer in its tracks” is the main theme of this blog site. Ask yourself, if you knew your immune system would rid your body of cancer cells, would you be willing to take the steps necessary to improve the health of your immune system?
I’m from the Midwest, and there is something in my Midwestern background that makes me hesitate to answer an open-ended or leading question like the one above.
My answer would be: “Of course I would, but first tell me what steps you are talking about.”
Fair enough, the first step is to learn a few basic principles about your immune system. That is the purpose of this brief tutorial.
Today it is generally accepted by molecular biologists and supported by vast amounts of scientific research that our bodies are constantly producing cancer cells. Each day every person has some amount of cancerous cells in their body. These cells are commonplace in our tissue and our blood stream. A healthy immune system hunts them down, killing them before they have found a home and before they can begin to multiply.
How cancer gets started
Cancer starts as a single cell. All cells are formed by the division of preexisting cells. As one living cell in our body transforms itself into two living cells (a process that happens at least ten million times in an adult human body every second) something goes awry.
A mutation in the genes of the newly created cell occurs (we know it takes a series of prior mutations) and the cell loses its stability. Within every normal cell is a regulatory mechanism that determines the cycle of normal cell division. Surrounding cells send messages to each neighboring cell, telling it when to start or halt cell division. As a result of its DNA damage, the new cell loses its ability to halt cell division, so it keeps producing sister cells relentlessly. Cells keep piling upon each other until a tumor is formed. By the time it is detected, a typical tumor may have more than a hundred million cells.
Besides being unable to halt cell division, there is a second aspect of cancer cells that set them apart from normal cells; they are immortal. They never die on their own accord. Most cells have a specific lifespan, not cancer. To get rid of cancer cells they must be removed or destroyed, one way or another.
It is a common and shared fear among cancer survivors that even though their treatment is over there might be one or more cancer cell left behind that will cause a cancer recurrence.
You will learn in this tutorial that your immune system’s natural killer cells track down, attack, and destroy these rogue cancer cells.
To understand how the immune system attacks cancer, you need to know a few basics about how the immune system operates.
Your amazing immune system
Your immune system is a wonderfully complex array of many cell types with varying powers and responsibilities, each cell responding to different stimuli but often unable to function except in alliance with other cell types within the system. The immune system is truly miraculous. It is not a single organ like the heart or the brain. It is an extremely sophisticated assortment of many distant structures and free-roaming independent cells that fan out into all parts of the body united in the purpose of destroying and removing everything that does not belong in your body – including cancer cells.
It does this in an incredible, coordinated manner with each cell communicating with all the other immune cells throughout the body!
The immune system is often called the body’s second brain. It never forgets, and every single immune cell can communicate with all of the other immune cells even though disconnected and separated in far parts of the body.
Science is just beginning to unlock the immune system’s secrets. We live in a time of a knowledge explosion. It is said that knowledge doubles every two or three years. No one person can keep up.
Fortunately, just knowing a few of the fundamentals of how your immune system attacks cancer is all you need to lead the attack.